May 10, 2017

Public art can startle, resonate and inform, but its role is changing as expectations evolve about what it should be and do. York University’s Department of Visual Art & Art History is hosting a symposium May 18-20 focusing on the policies and practices of commissioning and creating art for the public realm.

Night image showing a lit carousel and fairground attraction reflected in a body of water.
“Silent Fairground”, an installation created in 2015 in Hagen, Germany by the art practice Sans façon, stages a set from which the audience generates the scene, allowing public experience to provoke a new relationship with place.

Public Art: New Ways of Thinking and Working will bring together artists, curators, urban planners, academics, policymakers and community organizers to explore the changing role of public art. Talks and panels are designed to spark conversations across disciplines, from the perspective of both research and practice, about the current state of contemporary Canadian public art practice in the context of innovations happening internationally.

seated figure, cast in bronze, with the body of a man in a suit and a head made of a cluster of animal heads
Brandon Vickerd: “Wildlife” (2015), one of a pair of bronze figures installed in Edmonton’s Quarters District.

The symposium is co-organized by Ciara McKeown, a Calgary-based public art consultant and commissioner, and sculptor Brandon Vickerd, chair of the Department of Visual Art & Art History in York’s School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design.

McKeown has served as advisor to the Creative City Network of Canada, and currently works as a project manager with artists Sans façon.

Vickerd’s large-scale public art projects include Wildlife, hybrid human/animal bronze figures commissioned for streetscapes in Edmonton and Thunder Bay, and Dance of the Cranes, a collaborative, choreographed work performed by high-rise construction cranes perched atop buildings, that has engaged developers and crane operators and enthralled residents in Toronto, Edmonton and Washington D.C.

“Public art is contentious. It straddles expectations ranging from traditional to temporary, monument to site, community-based to corporate,” said Vickerd. “The increasingly diverse, connected and yet fractious world we live in raises important questions about the role of public art and its relationship to issues such as economic disparity, environmental uncertainty, cultural inclusivity and political unrest.”

Vickerd noted that the symposium comes at a pivotal moment, as ideas of what public art can and should be are being revisited by both creators and commissioners across Canada.

“Most Canadian municipal public art policies were established decades ago. Since that time, artists have dramatically re-positioned their approach to public art. And so has the public. Audience engagement is key,” Vickerd said. “Our symposium takes an inclusive approach to exploring current issues and innovations, with the aim of expanding the conversation about public art in Canada and creating tangible outcomes. We look forward to lively debate and open dialogue on how to advance critical, social and civic discourse through public art, the shifting roles and expectations of artists, and what the future holds for public art practice.”

Night-time scene of projected images of a mountain with the word transparency over-written, flanked by scenes of human skulls, with viewers silhouetted in front of the images.
“A Temporary Monument to North American Energy Security”, an installation by Critical Art Ensemble at Nuit Blanche, Toronto, 2014, contrasts corporate and environmentalist arguments regarding extraction industries.
headshot of keynote speaker Steve Kurtz
Steve Kurtz

Public Art: New Ways of Thinking and Working kicks off Thursday, May 18 at 7pm with a free public lecture by American artist and educator Steve Kurtz. He is a founding member of the internationally acclaimed Critical Art Ensemble, a collective of tactical media practitioners whose work in digital and visual media, text and performance intersects art, critical theory, technology and political activism. In his keynote addresses, “When Aesthetics is Not Enough”, Kurtz will speak to the challenges of producing art in the public sphere that moves beyond decoration, and the artist’s role in creating shared platforms of expression in pursuit of social and environmental justice. Kurtz’ talk is co-presented by the Art Gallery of Ontario and takes place at the AGO’s Jackman Hall.

headshot of keynote speaker Cameron Cartiere
Cameron Cartiere

Cameron Cartiere, a practitioner and researcher specializing in public art, community engagement and urban renewal, delivers a second keynote Friday, May 19 at 4:30 pm at York. An associate professor in the Faculty of Culture + Community at Emily Carr University of Art & Design, Cartiere currently leads a team of artists, writers, scientists and new media researchers on a project that uses public art as the driving force for positive sustainable environmental change in Richmond and Kelowna, B.C. Her talk, “Permanent Works in an Impermanent Time”, will address problems of standard practices in current municipal commissioning processes for public art.

The symposium also features a dozen panel discussions on topics ranging from the role of artists in city-building and of public art as social engagement, to the political and cultural role of commemorative monumental sculptures, public space and Indigenous political expression, Canadian public art in China, and artistic dissension as community practice.

Public Art: New Ways of Thinking and Working is open to the public. For full details on the program, presenters and schedule, visit

Except for Steve Kurtz’ talk at the AGO, all events take place in the Accolade West Building at York’s Keele campus.A symposium pass is $125 and $75 for students/artists/underemployed. Register online.

Public Art: New Ways of Thinking and Working is a York University Canada 150 project.